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Developing Gross Motor Skills in Early Childhood

Gross motor skills are a crucial part of a child’s development during the early years.

Here is a brief overview of what they are, why they’re important and how you can develop them with simple play activities.

What are Gross Motor Skills?

Motor development is about learning to move, control and coordinate the body. Gross motor skill refers to large body movements and the ability to control them.

Much of a child’s cognitive development is based on their motor skills, so this is an important aspect of their overall holistic development.

The development of a child’s body and sensorimotor skills is a complex puzzle that affects multiple areas of development. Children need to develop, among other things:

  • Body awareness
  • The ability to cross their midline
  • Bilateral integration – getting both sides of the body to move together
  • Eye-hand and eye-foot coordination
  • An understanding of their position in space
  • The vestibular (balance) and proprioception (body position) senses
  • Directionality 

Gross Motor Skills vs Fine Motor Skills

The body develops motor skills in a pattern – from the head downwards, from the body out to the limbs and finally to the fingers, toes, etc.

While gross motor refers to the large muscles of the body responsible for a baby lifting her head, walking, etc., fine motor refers to developing the small muscles of the body, such as the fingers, toes and eyes.

Both types of motor skills develop through play during early childhood.

Examples of Gross Motor Skills

Many of the activities children engage in every day are hugely dependent on their large motor skill development.

Here are a few gross motor skills examples

  • Walking 
  • Running 
  • Climbing 
  • Jumping, hopping and skipping
  • Throwing, catching and kicking a ball
  • Riding a tricycle or bicycle
  • Swimming
  • Dancing

They also need to develop skills like balance, strength, coordination and stamina.

Gross Motor Skills for Babies

Gross motor development is rapid in infancy.

Babies must learn to lift their heads, balance themselves while sitting and roll over. They then learn to crawl or shuffle, pull themselves up on furniture, and eventually walk. 

A great motivation for developing these abilities is the desire to explore their world.

Gross Motor Skills for Toddlers

Toddlers love to run, hop and jump. They also learn how to climb – such as up stairs, or on and off chairs.

They lift, fetch and carry things and push/pull toys with wheels. At this stage, they also start learning how to throw and kick a ball. 

Gross Motor Skills for Preschoolers

Children reach many gross motor milestones during the preschool years.

They play ball games, ride tricycles and play running and chasing games while effectively navigating their position in space.

They learn to climb, swing, jump on a trampoline and lots more.

Kids jumping on a trampoline

Their balance, strength and agility improve.

Gross Motor Skills Activities

Here is a list of activities that are great for developing the large muscles of the body.

Some of them make use of traditional gross motor toys (like balls and skittles), while others use just the body as a tool.

1. Play

Before you go about planning any of the gross motor activities listed below, it is worth mentioning that the best activity kids can engage in to promote their motor development – both fine and gross – is play.

This means child-led, completely free play.

Children are constantly moving as they explore, play with things, invent games, create and engage with others.

Many of the activities and exercises mentioned here will also naturally occur during play.

2. Action Rhymes

Action rhymes and movement songs get kids moving and exercising parts of their bodies, while at the same time learning to follow instructions. 

3. Balls

Balls are fantastic for developing eye-hand coordination and many gross motor skills.

Ball activities include movements such as throwing, catching, rolling, dribbling, kicking, hitting and bouncing.

Boy kicking a soccer ball

4. Music Games

Play music games such as musical statues or pass the parcel

They are also good for building concentration and developing midline crossing

5. Messy Play

Encourage kids to engage in sand play and water play

It’s not only good for sensory development, but also for gross motor movements.

6. Chasing Games

Chasing games build speed, concentration and the skill of moving one’s body in space, without knocking into others.

7. Vehicles

Get kids onto vehicles of all kinds – scooters, bikes, tricycles and bicycles.

Child riding a bike in the woods

8. Art Activities

Any art activities that use the larger muscles are good examples, such as:

9. Rolling Down Hills

Which kids don’t love rolling their bodies down hills? It’s so good for the vestibular system too!

Don’t have a hill nearby? Children can lie on the ground and pretend to be logs while rolling around.

10. Pretend Play

Putting on large oversized clothing, building a fort or walking around on all fours and roaring like a lion are examples of pretend play activities that are building those muscles.

11. Pretending to be Animals

Play a game where children must pretend to be a frog jumping, a bear walking on all fours, a donkey kicking its legs in the air or a snake slithering on the floor. This will often happen naturally during play.

These are excellent for shoulder stability, as is doing crab-walking with tummy facing upwards, and legs and arms on the ground.

12. Obstacle Courses

Create simple obstacle courses at home or school with whatever equipment, toys or natural items (like a tree stump) you have available.

13. Dancing

Dancing is a wonderful way to express one’s self, build body awareness and develop the muscles of the body.

14. Balancing Beams

Get kids to develop their balance by using any equipment or structures like a short wall, balancing beams, planks of wood or tree logs. They can even walk along a strip of tape placed on the floor.

Turn it into a game where you are tightrope walkers or you’re crossing a river and trying not to fall in.

15. Climbing Equipment

Expose kids as much as possible to playground equipment in parks, at school or at home.

Girl climbing on jungle gym by pulling on rope

They will get lots of opportunities to build motor skills while climbing, hanging, swinging, crawling through tunnels and sliding.

16. Movement Games

Play games that encourage movement, such as Hopscotch, Hide and Seek and Simon Says.

Child playing hopscotch

17. Bean Bags

Bean bags are such fun to play with and you can use them in multiple ways.

Here are 20 things you can do with bean bags.

18. Play with Gross Motor Equipment

Incorporate as many gross motor toys/equipment as you can into activities or free play. Examples include:

  • Skittles
  • Ladders
  • Hula hoops
  • Old tyres
  • Walking stilts
  • Skipping ropes

These are just a few examples of activities you can try. It is fairly easy to create fun activities by improvising and using what you have available. 

Sources:

Learning Through Play: A parent’s guide to the first five years”, written by Jan Natanson.

Language and School Readiness”, written by Martie Pieterse.

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